Pica (Eating Disorder)

What is Pica?

Originating from the latin word for ‘magpie’, pica is characterized by a desire to eat objects or substances that aren’t meant for consumption.

Magpies are known to eat anything, even rocks or coins. Pica is common in pregnant women, children, or mentally ill individuals, and may be a temporary fixation or a symptom of something more chronic. Pica may also be a compulsion caused by the body during malnutrition or vitamin deficiency, as the body’s way of gaining nutrients by any means necessary.

While many young children put foreign objects in their mouth and may accidentally swallow them, this is not pica since they are not actively seeking out non-nutritional items for consumption. Most patients with pica usually have a compulsion to eat a specific substance, which can vary depending on their condition, illness, or deficiency. Commonly consumed substances can include sand, dirt, chalk, feces, rocks, ice, paper, and even things like cushioning or drywall.

Pica may cause health complications such as poisoning or gastrointestinal blockage, and can lead to severe health issues if left untreated. The disorder may seem harmless when the sufferer is consuming seemingly harmless things, such as pencil graphite or ice, but these compulsions can lead to a variety of health issues, or may even encourage the person to move onto more concerning substances.

To treat pica, the cause of the disorder must be determined. Aside from deficiencies and malnutrition, pica can also be a characteristic of mental illnesses, religious rituals, or even cultural practices. While these may be less concerning physically, they can still be harmful to the sufferer and require professional attention and sympathy. Pica may be harder to treat than its childhood counterpart, since the adult’s compulsions and their reasoning behind them may be part of their personality.

Regardless, pica is a disorder and should be treated as such. If you or someone you know may be suffering from pica, it may be wise to contact a medical professional for an official diagnosis before beginning treatment. Solving the core issue may be the first step to stopping the compulsions, and therapy may help with the mental aspects of the disorder. In severe cases, medication can be used to treat pica and keep the patient from continuing their habits.

Pica symptoms

Because pica only has a single symptom, the guidelines for the disorder are extremely straightforward. However, there is a wide amount of non-food items, and some may be more common than others. The possibilities are nearly endless, and while they may seem harmless or strange, they can be a symptom of a much larger problem.

It also important to note that these instances must occur outside of coerced, forced, or religious contexts. Pica must be the self-induced compulsion to eat nutritionless items, and a child being forced to eat things they aren’t supposed to can be a sign of a completely different issue. If you believe a child is abused/bullied and being forced to eat non-food items, contact their guardians or child services as soon as possible.

Common compulsion-based eating habits can include:

  • Regularly consuming dirt, soil, sand, stones or clay.
  • Compulsively eating ice, specifically in cases not caused by fever, dehydration, overheating, or starvation.
  • A desire to consume bodily fluids or substances, such as mucus, feces, urine, blood, or vomit.
  • Regular attempts to eat harmful items such as sharp objects, glass, or wood.
  • Eating more mundane items, including paper, rubber, cushioning, paste, graphite, chalk, or drywall.

In order to be classified as pica, the person in question must continue these habits and compulsions for longer than a month. Otherwise, the case may be boiled down to a temporary fixation, a symptom of illness or malnutrition, or children not knowing any better.

Since there is such a wide variety of compulsions in cases of pica, any repeated attempts to eat non-food items should be noted for future reference. Parents, guardians, and caretakers are advised to take notice of these abnormal eating habits and notify a medical professional if their charges become focused on continuing them.

Pica causes

Pica is a common side effect of several medical conditions and may be a symptom in itself. Before diagnosing a patient with pica as a disorder, the person must be cleared of any suspicions for associated illnesses. Misdiagnosis can lead to a variety of issues, including improper treatment and the aggravation of pica’s symptoms.

The consumption of non-nutritional items can be the symptom of malnutrition, or even a specific deficiency. Low iron or zinc levels may prompt a patient, especially a child, to begin eating substances they shouldn’t. This compulsion may an attempt to get the nutrients they need, but it is more likely to harm them than glean the results their body wants. Pica may also be a sign of something more dire, including coeliac disease. In these cases, all proper tests and precautions should be taken to properly diagnose and treat the infected individual.

A strong factor in the cause of pica is obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD is characterized by the compulsions and obsessions, which may include eating rocks, sand, or paper. Cases such as these may warrant further action, and possibly medication to keep the patient from acting on their urges. OCD-caused pica cases are harder to spot in children than adults since the urge to eat foreign items is overlooked or passed off in children. If a child is consistently or methodically eating non-nutritional items, the matter should definitely be recorded and looked into.

There are a large number of pica cases that are explained by religious or cultural connotations. The consumption of white clay in the African-American culture and pica practices during religious rituals are also factors in causation.

While there are no strict guidelines for the roots and causes of pica, all symptomatic options should be exhausted before diagnosing an individual with a disorder-based case of pica. In children, therapy and behavioral conditioning may stem their urges to consume nonfood items, and adults can find help in therapy or within support groups. Medication is not advised as a first-attempt solution but may be necessary in extreme cases.

Pica treatment

Treatment of pica can vary on the causation and the age of the patient. Children may be coaxed out of their habits before they become seriously harmful, while adults may require additional attention to fully stop the compulsions.

If the pica is caused by malnutrition in the patient, the physical aspects of the disorder should be treated first. A better diet and vitamin supplements may solve the problem completely. If the habit continues after the physical ailment has passed, counseling or behavioral therapy can condition the sufferer to stop craving the substances entirely. Iron and zinc deficiencies are the most common contenders in most physical causes of pica.

Obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD may also manifest in forms of pica, so it is important to note any other OCD symptoms in the patient if they begin compulsively consuming non-food items. Sorting, counting, or ritualistic habits may be signs of OCD, and their rituals and compulsions may even involve acts of pica. In cases like these, a medical health professional may suggest seeing a therapist or psychologist to assist in treatment.

In adults, pica can be a type of coping method after trauma. They may find comfort in their compulsions, making it harder for them to stop their habits. They should find therapy and focus their energies on recovering. Their health is paramount, and letting them know that their eating habits are harming them may urge them to find professional help. Therapy and medication can be the natural next step, and they can begin finding more productive uses for their time and energy.

For many children, behavioral therapy can be done at home. Replacing the source of their compulsion (dirt, chalk, etc.) with actual food items, like small piece of candy or snack food, may actually urge them to replace their non-food items with consumables. Positive reinforcement is recommended, as well as patience with the child. Stress may aggravate their symptoms, and cause them to associate eating non-food items with coping.

Other conditioning methods can be used, especially in cases with children. Oral fixations can be solved with distractions such as hard candies, teething toys, or even chewing gum. If the patient is seen engaging in pica, making them dispose of the item and wash their hands can help them focus their energies away from their compulsion. From there, the act of eating non-food items can be replaced with a productive, non-harmful activity such as writing, playing a game, or even conversation.

It is important to remember that they are experiencing compulsions. If the diagnosis is correct, their eating of non-nutritional substances is not rooted in disobedience, but their own mental or bodily urges. Patience is an invaluable resource, as well as understanding and sympathy. In cases involving children, support can be required in order for the child’s development to continue properly.

Pica prevention

Preventing pica can be as simple as discouraging bad eating habits in children, to preventing deficiencies with a healthy diet. Feeding children a healthy diet of all the necessary vitamins and minerals can reduce their bodily urges to go eat non-food items, and productive uses of their time can reduce boredom-eating and possible pica.

However, if the compulsions are mental, the problem may lie in something much deeper. These causes may be unpredictable or impossible to avoid, so it is important to focus on treating the issue rather than trying to avoid it.

In adults, proper therapy after traumatic events and early treatment of pica can reduce the likelihood of engaging in harmful behaviors later in life. Children with pica in childhood are more likely to be diagnosed again, so treating the issue properly in childhood can prevent them from returning to their habits when they grow older. Lend a hand and let them know that they have your support before urging them to find help.

If a child, whether they are a student or a family member, is showing symptoms of pica, keep a close eye on them and record their symptoms and compulsions before bringing them straight to their guardian or a medical professional. Get them tested for any other associated disorders and illnesses, and treat them based on that diagnosis.

Patience, understanding, and sympathy are the best tools you can use during recovery. Making the person feel punished or outcasted for their disorder can prevent them from fully recovering. Shame and embarrassment may cause them to stop engaging in behaviors associated with pica, but it may only cause more issues. Avoiding negative action against a patient with pica can help them in the ways they truly need. Positive reinforcement and therapy are wonderful resources and can make the road to recovery smoother and paved with good results.

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Last Reviewed:
September 16, 2017
Last Updated:
September 16, 2017